If you don’t fight… you lose: Politics, Posters and PAM

If you dont fight you lose cover image 2024Flinders University Museum of Art. 25 May 2024


Cover Image: Mandy Martin, Adelaide railway station 2 (detail), 1973, screenprint, ink on paper, 50.0 x 73.7 cm (image) 55.9 x 75.9 cm (sheet), Ann Newmarch Collection, © the estate of the artist


The Flinders University Museum of Art is staging a highly illuminating and thoroughly researched exhibition of posters and prints produced in the 1970s, a turbulent era in politics and in visual art.


Most of the prints and posters are drawn from its collection and some from private sources, and the exhibition provides a unique and compelling analysis of this era of artistic, social and political change in South Australia.


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Installation view: If you don’t fight … you lose: politics, posters and PAM, 2024; Flinders University Museum of Art, Adelaide, photo: courtesy FUMA


The posters and prints were produced by members of the Progressive Art Movement (PAM), a group of as many as 30 people working in various art forms and centred at Flinders University’s philosophy department. PAM emerged in 1974 from discussions related to the teaching of the Politics and Art unit offered by the philosophy department whose head, Professor Brian Medlin, was a political activist noted for his earlier protests against the Vietnam War and who considered that art should be used for the benefit of society. The group questioned art’s purpose and reacted angrily to what was seen as American cultural imperialism as exemplified by modernist trends in visual art.


The early 1970s saw the election of the Whitlam Labor government in Canberra and the Dunstan Labor government in South Australia. Both were considered progressive governments that fostered the arts, but while the period may be seen as progressive politically, the PAM artists and associated groups were frequently highly critical of those governments. For example, the Whitlam government’s purchase of American abstract expressionist painter Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, for what was considered an exorbitant price, was especially criticised (nationally as well as locally) as being elitist, as an egregious example of US cultural imperialism and as a challenge to Australia’s cultural independence.


The If you don’t fight… you lose exhibition is accompanied by an extensive catalogue which includes an essay by exhibition curators Jude Adams and Professor Emerita Catherine Speck outlining the events surrounding the formation of PAM and associated organisations including the Progressive Printers Alliance and the Worker Student Alliance.


The exhibition title, If you don’t fight… you lose, was the also the title of the PAM exhibition of 1977, a title PAM had taken from a song by popular Adelaide-based musical ensemble Redgum which was also associated with PAM.


PAM’s visual arts group suffered from ideological differences and eventually split into factions. It dissolved altogether in 1978, but it had a significant impact well beyond its short lifespan. The PAM artists addressed a range of issues, primarily the class structure and the exploitation of workers, and also women’s liberation. With respect to visual art, Speck and Adams state that,


‘Their activism raised questions pertaining to the funding of international exhibitions and acquisitions, how best to support Australian art and artists, and who art should serve.’


The catalogue also contains an essay by curator and writer Julie Ewington, entitled Five Years in Adelaide, reflecting on her participation in events of the time. As well as PAM, she was involved with the then recently established Experimental Art Foundation and the Women’s Art Movement. Ewington states,


‘What I found in Adelaide was a compact, intense network of passions, commitments, conversations and, yes, rivalries in the arts, which were underpinned by positions that were often, in the end, political.’


Arts educator and curator Suzanne Close’s essay A Contemporary Perspective, addresses today’s socially engaged art practice, particularly the work of the activist First Nations artists group proppaNOW which challenges the very idea of ‘Aboriginal art’.


The posters are grouped thematically in the exhibition. The first group, entitled We must risk unlearning all the things that have kept us alive for so long, comprises posters questioning traditional perceptions of women’s roles and advocating women’s liberation. It includes Ann Newmarch’s We must risk unlearning (1975) that suggests that societal attitudes are deeply imbedded.


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Ann Newmarch, We must risk unlearning, 1975, screenprint, ink on paper, edition 28/40, 71.2 x 55.5 cm (image), 81.4 x 66.0 cm (sheet), Collection of Flinders University Museum of Art


The second group of prints, entitled And even if they say that you never had it so good, that is still a slogan of those who have much more…, challenges the myth of Australia as a classless society. Mandy Martin’s poster You never had it so good juxtaposes an image of women at leisure, representing an upper class, with an image of women factory workers.


Posters included under When workers unite bosses tremble call for the nationalisation of Australia’s car industry. In the 1970s, the Adelaide factories of US-owned vehicle manufacturers GMH and Chrysler (both factories since defunct) were seen to exploit workers, resulting in voluble and disruptive union protests. Activist posters were displayed by workers in workplaces, prompting an angry response from management. Ann Newmarch’s Free Will Heidt (1976) shows an image of the union leader of that name who had been gaoled. The issue of foreign control of Australian industries more broadly is reflected in Mandy Martin’s Who owns Australia (1976), which shows the image of a hand holding banknotes superimposed over an image of miners.


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Mandy Martin, Australian Independence, 1974 screenprint, ink on paper, 55.9 x 76.0 cm, Collection of Flinders University Museum of Art 5053, © the Estate of the artist


Robert Boynes’s Let’s make things perfectly clear (1974) characterises the use of posters to project simple, clear and powerful messages to a wide audience. PAM was closely connected with the communist movement, and produced posters supporting communist election candidates, such as Jim Cane’s Vote Communist (c1970s).


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Jim Cane, Vote communist, c. 1970s, screenprint, ink on paper, 66.5 x 44.0 cm (image), 70.8 x 50.9 cm (sheet), Collection of Flinders University Museum of Art


Many of the prints, however, make extensive use of text and invite close reading and analysis of their symbolism. The comprehensive Exhibition Guide lists the works and their related themes. The artists’ work was often a form of very personal expression and embodied a strong commitment to the causes they championed.


The work of some PAM artists continued after PAM disbanded, for example, Andrew Hill’s New technology for prosperity not unemployment (1984). Some artists also worked in other media — Ann Newmarch made pillowslips bearing the Eureka flag, an iconic symbol of rebellion that was displayed in the call for nationalisation, and she reused some of her images to create postcards.


The exhibition reflects the expansion of the nature of art and the shift in the role of artists that emerged in the 1960s with the emergence of Pop Art and the creation of multiple examples of works that would be more accessible to the public. Some of the posters were produced in large numbers for display in public places, while others were produced in limited editions for gallery display. In many cases, the printing techniques were quite sophisticated, using multiple layers of colour rather than monochrome. Work produced by teams of artists challenged the tradition of the heroic, solitary artist making unique works for an elite market.


The themes that occupied the minds of the PAM artists are still with us today. Issues such as warfare, the cost-of-living crisis, homelessness, the exploitation of workers, the concentration of wealth in few hands, the abuse of women, the suppression of protesters and the threat of authoritarian government seem not only perennial but worsening.


We might wonder if the protests identified in this outstanding exhibition had achieved anything, but we might also wonder where we would be if there had been no protests. The exhibition title, If you don’t fight… you lose may be seen as a call to recognise the issues we are facing and to take action. This is a most timely and thought-provoking exhibition.


Chris ReidIf you dont fight you lose cover image 2024


When: 6 May to 5 July

Where: Flinders University Museum of Art

Bookings: flinders.edu.au/museum-of-art

Exhibition Guide: flinders.edu.au/museum-of-art/_/exhibition-guide